Thoughts on the Hamazkayin Cultural Retreat

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Dr. Lalai Manjikian and Dr. Khatchig Mouradian, Belmont, Mass., May 28, 2022 (Photo: Nanar Avedessian)

I recently fell in love with being Armenian again on a trip to Boston, Massachusetts last month.

It’s not that I ever stopped being in love with being Armenian. However, much has happened in recent years, both individually and collectively, that needs to be addressed, expressed and dealt with.

These include, but are not limited to: navigating a global pandemic, the immeasurable loss caused by the 44-day war in Artsakh that retriggered the trauma of genocide, and presented an additional layer of questions about how to address the transmission of the history and reality of the war to the younger generation. We also cannot ignore the imminent threats in and around Armenia/Artsakh and the resistance movement currently unfolding in Armenia.

In this complex context, Hamazkayin cultural retreat at the Vartan Gregorian Building of the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research (NAASR) provided a safe, non-hierarchical intellectual space much needed for meaningful exchanges, as well as healing and empowering conversations among participants.

Although many participants had just met for the first time at the retreat, there was an unmistakable sense of familiarity in the air, largely due to the unifying power of the native language. Suddenly through language we were all back home. Hearing Eastern and Western Armenian fill the soundscape throughout the weekend retreat was a pure delight. And maybe the short time we spent together prompted us to connect faster and on a deeper level.

As many informal or more formal conversations took place, I was intrigued by how language creates a certain type of intimacy between individuals. Even though language can become barriers in our lives, seeing how it can so quickly establish common ground between strangers or old friends is always encouraging. Add differences in dialect and expressions based on geographic locations, and you have all the colorful nuances and richness of the Armenian language coming to life.

The language came to life when Los Angeles writer and actress Sona Tatoyan delivered a gripping performance of ‘Azad,’ a play she wrote about her great-great Karagöz shadow puppets. -grandfather (an ancient art form of storytelling). Tatoyan’s ‘Azad’ is where folk art, family history, genocide, war, trauma and healing collide.

Through his use of language alone (without any theatrical elements such as lighting, music, or stage props for this particular performance), Tatoyan’s poignant storytelling allowed his audience to be immersed in distant places oscillating between the present and the past.

It’s safe to say that Tatoyan’s masterful use of language set the tone for the retreat, as she poetically connected her family’s century-old history of genocide in war-torn Syria. His performance deeply moved the participants.

After Tatoyan’s performance, all attendees and speakers held a safe space for each other to have a raw, unfiltered discussion about family history, intergenerational trauma, and healing.

Unfortunately, these conversations don’t happen often enough within our communities, even though they are badly needed.

The art of thinking, speaking and writing in Armenian was taken to a whole new level during Dr. Lisa Gulesserian’s workshop on the art of producing a ‘zine’. A zine is a small-scale, magazine-like self-published publication that can focus on a wide range of topics. Dr. Gulesserian, who teaches Western Armenian language and Armenian culture at Harvard University, asked participants to individually come up with a concept, write, illustrate and then present a zine in Armenian.

Although I am fluent in Armenian, this exercise took me out of my language comfort zone. Initially, I was uneasy about the whole idea; however, soon enough I was attracted and offered some content in Armenian. I created a zine in Armenian on mindfulness and yoga, which eventually got me thinking about expressing these topics close to me in my native language. Thanks to this workshop, I realized how much I express so many of my passions, hobbies and interests only in English or French. What prevents me from approaching them and expressing them in Armenian?

Dr. Kristi Rendahl’s presentation on “Navigating times of disruption through language” was emotional. Dr. Rendahl, who is an associate professor at Minnesota State University, does not have Armenian ancestry, but is fluent in Eastern Armenian. She learned to speak the language while living in Armenia.

During her interactive lecture, she spoke about her work with non-governmental organizations. I was in awe of the way Rendahl personalized the language, appropriated it by recounting his professional or personal experiences. I was very touched when Rendahl talked about using language as the primary caregiver for her sick father. The clever and innovative ways in which she and her father used language to communicate, despite its limitations and difficult health conditions, made me think of the endless possibilities that language offers outside the confines of rigid semantic rules.

As she spoke eloquently of deeply personal experiences in a language that is not her mother tongue, it was beautiful to learn how language came to shape her experiences and allowed her to express her emotional world. . Dr. Rendahl’s presentation testified to how liberating language can be and how language has no boundaries. His presentation brought a deeply human component to the retreat.

Much of what I learned from this retreat can be applied in my everyday life and not just in an academic context, which made the experience doubly rewarding.

During the closing talk of the retreat, Dr Mouradian invited me to join him for a discussion on narratives and agency in the context of migration, genocide, war and refugees. I touched on different types of discourse surrounding refugees, as well as the ethical dimensions related to those who are forced to flee.

My aim was to highlight the importance of migrant stories and how the voices of refugees are crucial to understanding their plight and the realities of daily life. This is particularly important given that some media, political discourse and public opinion tend to dehumanize and criminalize refugees.

I then focused on how refugees in an urban context cope with an ‘in-between’ period (both in spatial and temporal terms). During this period of uncertainty and indefinite waits to obtain official status, refugees face a number of significant obstacles. As a result, they face social exclusion. However, through a series of qualitative interviews I conducted with asylum seekers, it became clear that they manage to carve out a place for themselves by participating in social and political activities in the city. In doing so, they establish a sense of belonging and become productive members of society, even if they are not officially recognized as citizens.

Dr. Mouradian, for his part, brought together all the themes of the retreat, including language, identity, narratives, storytelling, agency and the importance of amplifying the voices of targeted communities. The discussion ended with the importance of building solidarity with other communities that have similar pasts marked by genocide and injustice.

Meeting such bright and talented young Armenians from across the United States and Canada, hearing their perspectives during our conversations, as well as learning about their academic backgrounds was refreshing. The retreat renewed my sense of hope for the Armenian Diaspora and for Armenia in these turbulent times.

Sometimes living in diasporic communities can feel overwhelming. This retreat gave me the impression of getting some fresh air, of re-oxygenating myself so that we could return home and continue our work in our own communities, Armenian and non-Armenian. How refreshing to engage with a group of bright, progressive, like-minded young Armenians who are moving and shaking up ideas, the status quo, infusing our communities with new vision and direction.

There was something deeply empowering about having descendants of genocide survivors come together, speaking Armenian, expressing how the past plays out in the present and how they intend to shape the future.

Our destiny as Armenians has been largely based on survival, and this retreat reinforced the idea that through language, storytelling, action and storytelling, as always, we will not just survive, but we will prosper.

Lalai Manjikian

Dr. Lalai Manjikian is a professor of human sciences at Vanier College in Montreal. Her teaching and research interests are in immigration and refugee studies, media representations of migration, migrant narratives, and diaspora studies. She is the author of Collective Memory and Home in the Diaspora: The Armenian Community in Montreal (2008). Lalai’s articles have appeared in a number of newspapers and journals, including The Armenian Weekly, Horizon Weekly, 100 Lives (The Aurora Prize), the Montreal Gazette, and Refuge. A former participant of Birthright Armenia (2005), over the years, Lalai has been active in volunteerism within the Armenian community in Montreal and the local community in general, particularly engaged in the integration of immigrants and refugees. Previously, she was a qualitative researcher for the survey of the Armenian diaspora in Montreal. Lalai is also a board member of the Foundation for Genocide Education. She holds a doctorate in communication from McGill University (2013).

Lalai Manjikian
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